Sue Nyathi was born in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe, in 1978. Though she worked as an investment analyst, writing has always been her leading passion. She has so far had three novels published: The Polygamist, The Gold Diggers and A Family Affair. Now living in Johannesburg, she says that she has many more manuscripts to come.
BY KRIS VAN DER BIJL
This conversation took place between Johannesburg and Cape Town, South Africa, via Zoom.
Kris: Your latest novel, A Family Affair, opens with the line “It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single woman of childbearing age must be in want of a husband.” Most critics mention how this inverts Jane Austen’s opening to Pride and Prejudice. Interviewers have also picked up on it, but I realised that none of them actually asked your opinion of Jane Austen.
Sue: (Laughs). I love her books, and I love Pride and Prejudice. It has always been a dream of mine to write a modernised version of it. But I couldn’t exactly pick up on that society as it was because there are other dynamics that are going on now in society. There are similarities, like women being married off. That’s what happened in Pride and Prejudice, and it’s a similar thing in my own African patriarchal society. It’s just the dynamics of black women getting married differ from white women. But I just love that whole theme —marriage, class, finding a suitable partner—so it became the premise of the book. So those were the parallels I drew from. It’s the same thing as that period of time, it just plays out differently nowadays. We still have Elizabeth and Mr Darcy—those kinds of dynamics.
Kris: I mention this because what really drew me to the book was your portrayal of reality as a borrowed form from the realism of Austen’s book. Though your book is set in Bulawayo, it’s very universal. I’m interested in your opinion on how you feel African novels can relate to European counterparts. That’s not to place novels like Jane’s above yours, but rather to point towards the conversation that your novel has with Austen’s. There’s a dialogue, if I’m not mistaken, that brings out more in both books.
Sue: The reason I wrote this book was to spark a dialogue on bigger overarching issues relating to marriage—and not just in an African context. I’ve had people from other races who’ve read the book and said that they’ve been able to relate even though the central characters are black Africans. I mean a lot of societies are built on patriarchy so it’s a theme that most people can relate to, in that it transcends colour and race which is nice. As you say, it then has universal appeal. And I think that was my overall aim. There are certain things that we need to start talking about as a result of these societal constructs. I mean some of the violence that we see now is rooted in that, and I think that’s why it’s important to have this kind of dialogue. Of course Pride and Prejudice is lighter in terms of the themes—when I say lighter, I mean that it doesn’t really go behind the closed doors. And there’s no violence in Austen’s book, at least not the kind that’s in mine.
Kris: I get the universal thing because I did see myself in a lot of these characters, and was part of why I wanted so much to talk about this with you. Something that amazed me is the lives of the sisters and what was going to happen to them. In the beginning, I thought that the story was going to be a lot more fun. It starts with a wedding and they are all having a great time, drinking champagne and all. And then as you read the book you realise that this is not going to end well for a character like Yandisa.
Sue: Yes, that was intentional on my part. If you think of life, Kris, life has light moments and dark moments. It’s not just a canvas painted with one brush, and so I just wanted to bring all that together to show the different layers, the happy and sad moments. It’s not just a linear journey as we go through life. And it’s important for the reader to experience all the different moments in the lives of the characters as well.
“Life has light moments and dark moments. It’s not just a canvas painted with one brush, and so I just wanted to bring all that together to show the different layers, the happy and sad moments.“
Kris: I love that. Life has light moments and dark moments.
Sue: I mean, think of your day. Your day is cut into two: it’s day and night. There is darkness. There is light. It’s the same with our lives. And when I write I can see both. I like to reflect both the happy and the sad.
Kris: Religion is quite central in the novel. Pastor Abraham, the father of the Mafu family, goes back to church after he’s done these bad things in his life. He seems to exemplify the good and bad of life as his own life was both.
Sue: What I like about Abraham is that he wants to be a picture-perfect person. We can say he was bad and then he became good after he had his “born again” episode. But what he lacked was empathy for someone who had also been what he had been through. He didn’t have the same empathy towards his daughters. And that was the actual problem. He didn’t say, “I’ve gone down a bad road, but let me use my experience to father better.” And so that was what was problematic with him. Instead of his experiences empowering, they disempowered. He was very judgemental where he could have helped. That was what I was trying to do there. A lot of religious people are like that. They have zero empathy and a lot more judgement.
Kris: Do you think that if Abraham had been more empathetic, and I suppose introspective, the lives of the family would have been different?
Sue: I think so. You need to be more understanding, you know. Things could have turned out much better if he’d been more understanding, more loving. Healthy love heals. Why I think religion is important in the book is that we grow up in societies where it is in the background of our lives. It determines what is right and wrong. It becomes an important interface. Even when people get married it’s also a religious construct. You see it in Zandile’s marriage as she conforms to how religious people should get married. She ticks all the boxes.
Kris: Interesting how you mention Zandile and her expectations of marriage. I think she was also very lucky with the man that she married. Ndabenhle was quite a good husband, at least compared to Wesley. Do you think following conventions is one way, but also luck is involved in life?
Sue: Yes, but also think about it this way. If Yandisa had ended up with Ndabenhle, the trajectory would have been very different. Her life would have been very different to what it was. Ndaba wasn’t a great person, but he wasn’t a Wesley. We can see the difference. I always like to say that in a patriarchal society you’ve got choices between two types of men. You have the toxic patriarchs like Wesley, and you have the benevolent patriarchs like Ndaba. So as long as you do what’s expected of you, you can have a fairly good life. That was just to reflect what’s out there for a lot of women and what they have to choose from. In that sense, Zandile was lucky. I know a lot of people have had it too easy, but there are people who don’t. Life is not fair, is it? You have people who are affluent and people who are poor. Who decides how the scales are weighed?
Kris: The sisters and the Mafu family are somewhat wealthy and quite cosmopolitan in the way that they travel the world. Is there any reason why you made them such?
Sue: It was pointed out in the sense that whenever we have books based in Africa, like an African story, it’s always the struggling black family, but that’s not really truly representative. Not all families are poor despite how Africa is characterised by poverty. And I mean not all families in the book are wealthy. Wesley’s family, for instance, is not rich but it was also to show that there is another layer of the African family. Wealth comes with its own problems and challenges. I just wanted to speak on that. Having grown up in a middle class family, it was also a way to capture that kind of society. The book is a social narrative.
Kris: On social narrative, I realised when reading this book that there are very few books that mention how integrated Southern African countries are. In your book the characters have family across the border and stuff. Do you think that such representation is lacking in what we might call Southern African fiction, or am I just not reading the right books?
Sue: (Laughs). A lot of literature you’re probably exposed to is Nigerian. You see how Nigerians move. They mostly move to London, or the States. South Africa and Zimbabwe share a proximity and a colonial past. There’s access. I think it’s important to show that history. I mean when Rhodes came to colonise Zimbabwe he came with a lot of Xhosa people who then settled in Zimbabwe. That culture then became integrated into our own. I like to show that as much as we like to divide ourselves with borders, we’re more related than we think. When people marry, it strengthens the relationships and bonds. That’s kind of why Pumla and Abraham come from different countries. I tried to show that relations do form across borders. Our cultures are very similar. A lot of people ask why Xhosa culture was dominant in the marriage, and I say that it’s not Xhosa culture, it’s Ndebele culture, and now you see how very similar Nguni cultures are. We tend to point out our differences without appreciating the similarities between us. I thought it was important to highlight.
Kris: I think it is quite an important thing to mention. And the characters of the novel, at least sisters, really express what can be achieved through community. Would you say the sisters are in many ways a representation of yourself?
Sue: So this is always interesting. I always say that there’s a lot of me in each of them at different times of my life. A part of me can relate to Yandisa’s character. She had a child out of wedlock, and though she had it as a teenager, I had mine out of wedlock though much older but I understand the stigma around having a child out of wedlock. In that sense I can relate to her struggle and the shame it would have brought. In the same way I could be Xoliswa in the sense that she made a choice to have the child on her own. That is empowering in the sense that it is something she chooses, and then she goes on to live life on her own terms. I would say I’m a combination of the two. Whilst I’ve experienced abuse, maybe not the physical kind that she has experienced, I can empathise with her character. But I wouldn’t want to be with a married man! So that part of Xoliswa I’d forgo, but everything else I like. She owns her choices and stands up for them. I see myself there.
Kris: I read somewhere that it took you nearly twenty years to write this book. Perhaps we could talk about that? What made you return to it?
Sue: So I started the book just after high school in my first year of university. I did like the first draft of the book, but, on reflection, I was too young. The idea and the family were born then. What inspired me to write it then still hasn’t changed. Initially I was just thinking about my life, going to university, getting an education, but I was also told that I needed to get married. I was told that I was getting an education in case marriage doesn’t work out. That was the kind of environment I was raised in. Ultimately you’re supposed to be with someone and to have your own family and to exist within and for your own family. So I was writing it trying to sift through this whole thing that we are supposed to aspire to. I then tried to get it published when I was about 23.
I got my first rejection letter with pointers on what to work on. I’m not trained as a writer, and I also didn’t know a lot. Eventually I took the editor’s criticism and rewrote the book, but I still didn’t get it published. I’m an investment analyst and at the time I was focusing on my career. I revisited it again when I was 30. I met a new publisher and he was keen on the book, but he had me rewrite the book with just Yandisa. The publisher unfortunately died as we began the publishing process, so that version of the book died with him. I left it again only to revisit it after I turned 40. The story was there again because I was watching my younger sister. Her and her friends were all getting married at the time, or wanting to get married. They’re all educated professionals, but they were like “we have to get married.” Here we are, there’s this new generation, and they still want the same things. So I found that very interesting because it hasn’t really changed. Nothing’s really changed. I found it interesting how these themes keep repeating themselves, so I figured that I should tackle it again.
Kris: I, and I’m many others, are very grateful that you did return.
Sue: I’m curious. As a man, how did you find the book?
Kris: I enjoyed it. I always enjoy books about sisters, maybe because I never had one. Their relationships always interested me, made me want to be a part of it. And books about sisters getting married tend to be fun. They explore marriage in a way that more male books tend not to. Are there books about how to be a man in marriage? And all the complexity of social constructs with that? And I suppose your book gives a way of how to be a man in marriage. Maybe that’s what drew me in. There’s also that thing in being a man where you ask yourself whether you are a Wesley or Ndaba. Obviously you want to be one instead of the other, the better of two evils. Like you said the world has toxic and benevolent men, which makes you wonder how you become such in the first place. Why you are still repeating these questions, these constructs, you feel like you woke up in. If that makes sense.
Sue: Did you like the cover? A lot of people ask me about the cover.
Kris: It’s a nice cover. What about it?
Sue: It’s the bandage. A lot of people try to take it off. They ask what its significance is. If you could see, it’s like a photograph torn. I think it reflects the themes of the book in the terms that we are a family tree. Then the trees are torn—like the family tree. Then we put the bandage on but we don’t heal. Its superficial way of dealing with a wound. We never go deep into dealing with our wounds. We carry things forward, from one generation to the next. We deal with things at a superficial level. I think if Yandisa had gotten help for her trauma it might have turned out differently for her. That’s what the cover speaks to as a theme in the book. I think it’s brilliant.
Kris: Brilliant cover for a brilliant book. I realise now that I failed to mention its nomination for the 2021 Sunday Times/CNA Literary Awards. Are we expecting a win?
Sue: (Laughs). I’m glad that the book is getting this recognition and that it has been rated so highly in the first place. I’ve been nominated before, for The Gold-Diggers, so don’t say I’m obviously going to win. But I think it speaks to my writing. You know I’ve always been insecure that other people have masters in creative writing, and I’m just a rookie in a way. It’s an affirmation to me. Like saying I’m on the right track.
Kris: Sue, it’s been wonderful talking. Thank you so much for the interview. All the best with the competition, and please have your next book out soon.
This dialogue was edited by our Contributing Editor, Tamanda Kanjaye.
Kris Van der Bijl is currently reading for a Master’s in Creative Writing at the University of Cape Town. His interests lie in African Literature in English. He writes short stories, poetry, book reviews and interviews. His writings have been published in the likes of Brittle Paper, LitNet, Lucky Jefferson and JA Magazine. He hopes to one day be called up-and-coming.